Monday, September 11, 2006

Moose Mountain Marathon #2

I didn’t need much convincing when registration opened for the 2006 Superior Trail Race series – the only question was which event… Moose Mountain Marathon, Superior Trail 50 Mile, or Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile… much as I’d like to say either of the latter two, I went for the safe option and entered the marathon. I had run this last year and enjoyed it so much I knew I would be back. I contemplated the 50 miler but decided to leave that for another day (or decade). As for the 100 miler – no explanation needed.

Plymouth team mate Erik also signed up along with a mate of his and I was looking forward to seeing some other familiar faces from the Minnesota Trail Running series of events which take place from April through October. Committed road runners Check It Out!

So the journey started on Friday evening, well on Thursday night really – getting to bed at 2am after the usual last minute packing. After a crazy day at work on Friday I eventually got on the road at 6pm and headed for I-35. Base camp for the races is the Caribou Highlands Lodge near Lutsen, approx. 250 miles from the Twin Cities (it continues to amaze me how I can drive 250 miles and still be in the same state – driving that distance in Ireland would take you pretty much anywhere in the country). Despite the late start I was looking forward to the 4 hour journey with just my favourite music for company as it seemed like my work week had been a series of endless meetings. That was until I realized I’d left the CDs I spent a half hour picking out sitting on my table at home… so with no option but the radio I tried out NPR, Cities 97 and the rather uplifting if bizarre (Christian) Life 98 and then settled on Hot Country for most of the journey – not usually a country fan I have to say it made for good road music - though I don’t quite get the “hot” part.

It was a pretty smooth drive without much traffic. But it got more interesting towards the end… I’ve had problems with my right glute for a while now so after a few hours I was getting restless and needed to stretch it out. Not wanting to stop and having no clue how to use cruise-control (I know, kind of sad) I drove the last 60 miles or so with my left foot on the pedal and my right leg… well, it’s kind of hard to describe but it was a comfortable if not-to-be-recommended driving position.

I got to the hotel soon after 10pm. Knowing that race packet pick-up was long over I checked with the reception and they said it would be open again at 5am. The marathon race start was 9am but I knew from last year we would be bused to the start as it’s a point-to-point race finishing at the hotel but not knowing what time the bus would be leaving I set the alarm for 5am and headed downstairs with a very sleepy head. Thankfully the buses weren’t leaving until 7:45 so it was back to bed for another 2 hours.

Breakfast consisted of brown bread, a banana and raspberry tea. Having entered a few long course triathlons this year I’ve been trying to figure out how best to eat for longer events so I like to experiment… as you will see. Luckily, after years of terrible eating habits my stomach can handle pretty much anything (except for straight vodka, though I haven’t given up on that just yet). Onto the bus with the other runners, more than a few of who I recognized from last year, and off we went to the start. It was cooler than last year so the open fire at the start was most welcome. I was getting a bit worried that I was wearing just a vest top for the run as lots of people seemed to be in sleeves but as it turned out it warmed up before long. Pre-race grub included a pack of gummi-bears, bunch of grapes, handful of M&Ms, a trail mix bar and 1 Advil.

Our race start was an aid station for the 100 miler which was also a point-to-point race, starting in Finland (a town in northern Minnesota, not the country, though it might as well have been) and it was the turn-around for the 50 miler which starts and finishes at the hotel. To make the full 26.2 miles for us there was a 1.2 mile loop at the start of the course – on flat ground which made a nice change from last year when the loop was around a mountain top.

9am and off we went. As it turned out Erik’s mate Jim was feeling a little worse for wear after a climb in the Tetons last week so he decided not to race. Probably a wise decision but we gave him a hard time all the same. Anyway Erik and I decided to run together – he is a faster road runner than me but being that it was his first trail race (may as well just start with a marathon I guess) he was happy to run with me – or just behind me since it’s mostly single track. As Erik easily won the “how many times can you fall in one race” competition (details below) I’m glad I stayed in front!

The first part of the course is pretty nice with just a few hills requiring us to walk. Lots of spectacular scenery including a gorge crossing (by bridge) just a little before the first aid station. Aid stations are a little less frequent on trail races given the terrain. We had 3 on the marathon course, at approx 8, 13 and 19 miles. I was carrying a water bottle so got that re-filled, munched on potato chips, grapes, jelly beans (yum), and coke to wash down 2 salt tablets. Once on the trail again I had my first gu (double-latte, my fav).

The next part of the course was more challenging with a little rock climbing thrown in for good measure. It was getting warmer though probably still in the low 60s. The sun was out but we were under tree cover for the most part and there was a cool breeze so it was really perfect running conditions. At the second aid station I ate pretty much the same, with a few M&Ms for dessert. Oh and another Advil, just in case the glute started to bother me. Thankfully it didn’t – must be that inventive in-car stretch.

Having made it to half way feeling really good I felt pretty confident I would have a better run than last year but I knew the worst part was yet to come. With less than 6 miles until the next aid station this section passed pretty quickly. Took another gu along the way, tangerine flavour this time. Lots of up and down on this part of the course. There’s nothing like racing down a steep trail to get the heart-rate going, especially knowing that one wrong footing can send you headfirst into a rock or pine tree. So it was almost a relief when the first fall came, especially when it wasn’t me! But it wasn’t long before I hit the dirt myself, though no sign of blood so I’m not sure it counts. Amazingly I had just one fall this year while Erik celebrated his first trail adventure with another three – getting the better of an obstructing branch the last time (but almost spraining his finger in the process so perhaps the branch won after all).

At the last aid station we filled up again, more coke, sweet treats and a banana. Refueled, if not refreshed, we set off for the finish, 7 miles to go – anyone can run that right? Yeah, not on these hills… but we did a pretty good walk/run combo. The second half of the course is definitely tougher, especially with tired legs. But thankfully that last section didn’t seem as long this year, for whatever reason I must be better trained this year – probably the biking all summer helped – in any case despite thinking there were several ups and downs ahead of us we soon passed a guy we knew who said it was just over 2 miles to go. And almost all downhill or flat – hooray!

Now I am always saying that trail running is less competitive than road running but you know that feeling when the finish is near and you see a few people just up ahead… oh yes, especially when they are guys. So with less than a mile to go and despite my legs begging me not to I picked up the pace and passed three guys who probably thought I was a bit mad but hey, I felt good! The run to the finish line is such a buzz – after hours of no more than a few supporters at the aid stations you are greeted with this big cheer as you come around the hotel to the finish line.

And then I was done! I don’t think I stopped smiling for the entire evening. I was totally jazzed to have improved on last year’s time while feeling ten times better. And Erik was delighted with his first trail race. The BBQ started up and we spent the next few hours watching runners finish, including the 50 mile winner who made it look far too easy. The 100 miler had started at 8am Friday so the top guys had finished that morning just as we were starting out. Most of the runners came in throughout the afternoon – it was amazing to see them smile, laugh and cry as they crossed the finish line and hugged their families and friends. I wondered briefly what it would feel like to be finally done after 30 hours on the go… before taking another sip of beer and deciding I don’t really need to know.

Another great trail running experience for me and I am sure the first of many for Erik. The trail definitely had a positive effect on him… 5 hours out there and he didn’t once mention internet dating!

The best part about trail running… it’s less about finishing times and more about the smile on your face the whole way through the run. Think of the smell of fresh pine needles, the carpet of orange-red leaves underfoot, and the breathtaking views of Lake Superior from several hundred feet above (and forget about the hills, falls and general all over body pain).

And here is Erik's report!

Hi Peter,

Helen and I finished the Moose Mountain Marathon on Saturday. Without Helen's support and tenacity, I would not have had such a successful race. She gave me two salt pills at the water stops. The pills helped me from cramping. At one water stop, I grabbed a jelly sandwich. I was so tired, that I could barely chew the sandwich. I sucked on that jelly sandwich like a cowboy with a Copenhagen chew. I carried that sandwich just as baby carrys a rattle, but after two miles and one measly bite, I fell and the sandwich ended up in the dirt.

After the last water stop at 19 miles, Helen started picking up the pace. By 22 miles, she was running down the hills at break-neck speed. Her forehead was all wrinkled up with determination; like a bulldog that's ready to bite the mailman! Since I had already twisted my ankles and fallen several times, I was doing everything I could to hang with her. I was like PeeWee Herman hanging on to Wonderwoman's cape! At around mile 23 we passed several people from the Bloomington club, and they were dumbfounded by Helen's speed. At 25 miles, I started halucinating, and Helen started looking blurry to me. I told her to leave me behind and she pulled into the gates at 4:49:56. I pulled in at 4:50:50. Helen took third place! She cut one hour and 20 minutes off of her last years time! I believe I took 15th place. I actually finished a marathon running! There's hope for me yet!

Afterwards, we stayed around and watched the marathoners, 50 milers, and 100 milers finish. Those 100 milers are truly amazing.

Thanks Helen and Peter,

Now go sign-up for 2007!